UPARC client Allen starts a rally during the adaptive tennis program.
CLEARWATER – Some played from wheelchairs. Some teamed up and engaged in active volleys. Some just watched. And some started out just watching, then slowly got more and more comfortable and then began playing themselves. No matter the ability, the verdict was clear: The UPARC adaptive tennis program was a hit.
UPARC is a nonprofit organization based in Clearwater that for over 30 years has served people with disabilities through day programs, residential programs and other services. In April, it launched its first adaptive tennis program for its consumers, using grant money to provide lighter racquets and balls, lower nets, and a professional trainer who is specialized in working with people with disabilities.
“We went out there and we didn’t know if we were going to have 10 people who wanted to go out or if we’d have 40 people who wanted to go out (and play,)” said Brian Siracusa, associate executive director of UPARC Inc. “We ended up with 50 people. So we exceeded our mark. And not only that day, but they continued to go out and enjoy the program and find the benefits of exercise, hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills.”
Siracusa and his parents are avid tennis players, which inspired him to organize this UPARC tennis program. This background happened to include a friendship with Judy Foster, executive director of the Suncoast Tennis Foundation. UPARC partnered with this organization and also the USTA (United States Tennis Association) Florida Section Foundation to develop the program.
“It was an initiative to create a fun atmosphere, promote physical fitness for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Siracusa said. “It’s a fun introductory program that can develop skills and, most importantly, you’re doing exercise and you’re having fun.”
For people of all abilities, exercise is much easier and more enjoyable if it’s incorporated into fun activities, such as tennis, Siracusa said. While exercise is important for everyone, statistically, he said, people with disabilities disproportionately have a more difficult time battling obesity than the general population.
The CDC confirms this and suggests that there are various reasons why this population may have a hard time eating healthy, controlling their weight and being physically active. For instance, some may have a hard time chewing or swallowing food or may have an aversion to its taste or texture. Certain medications also can play a factor in weight gain, weight loss and appetite, and physical limitations or pain could make it difficult for someone to exercise, according to the CDC. Others may be limited by a lack of energy, accessible environments, resources, or readily available healthy food options.
The overall goal of UPARC is to enrich the clients’ daily lives, said Madison Hauenstein, development and communications coordinator of the UPARC Foundation, and she said the adaptive tennis program definitely helps meet that mission.
“I think the socialization is great for them,” Hauenstein said. “Being able to get up out of their chairs and exercise.”
Members of UPARC’s day program were invited to participate in the tennis program, which ran from April through May, and it was so successful that it is gearing up to begin another session on Sept. 2, running through Oct. 30.
Siracusa said that the success of the Clearwater program has made UPARC want to expand it to its Safety Harbor location, too, especially since it now has all of the equipment needed.
“Adaptive tennis uses equipment that is lighter, the balls are softer, and it’s an early education into the game of tennis,” Siracusa said. “We use, for now, shorter nets, and so as their skills develop, we’ll continue to increase and move towards the more traditional tennis.”
The equipment was all ordered through the USDA Florida, and the racquets are smaller, and the balls are foam, Siracusa said. Most of the UPARC consumers had never played tennis before, so this was a great way to learn and also a way to circumvent many of their disabilities.
Dawn Lewellyn, certified recreation therapist, was the UPARC tennis instructor for the program. She has been involved with UPARC before and was excited to participate in this program.
“It’s pretty interesting,” Lewellyn said of adaptive tennis. “I’ve been involved with wheelchair tennis in the past, and it always seems (to fill) a need for people with intellectual disabilities, and the benefit that they get from doing tennis is amazing. When we do a session like this past session … it allows some of them who have never played tennis to learn a new activity – something they can do lifelong.”
Lewellyn said she loved watching their transformation, from social aspects and confidence to increasing their gross motor skills, even such as walking and swinging a racquet at the same time.
“I look at each of them like an athlete, not just a participant,” Lewellyn said. “It’s like a butterfly making their transformation.”
The players were split into two groups of 20 to 25 people, and twice a week they began their exercise as UPARC staff would walk one of the groups about a quarter mile to the city tennis courts at Coachman Ridge Park. Lessons then would begin with a group warm-up, and then people were split up into groups based on skill level and set them up on the various courts. Volunteers and Lewellyn helped each person on various skills.
“We use a larger tennis ball that has a lower compression so they don’t have to react as quick,” Lewellyn said. “It can bounce slower and allows them time to process that ‘I need to hit the ball.’”
In the beginning, they worked on just swinging the racquet. Then they learned the footwork. Only then did they add a racquet.
“It’s like a puzzle, putting everything together,” Lewellyn said.
She said it was amazing to watch the participants’ progress – from hitting the ball to serving to connecting on a receiving hit. At first, she said, a few people were hesitant to play in the beginning. The first day, one participant wouldn’t even come into the fenced-in court area. As time went on and he watched all the activity, he came inside. Then one day he actually wanted to play.
“Now he has a better backhand than most people I know,” Lewellyn said.
Some people have even become a bit competitive and want to start keeping score or even having some kind of tournament. Lewellyn said that while the first session worked on basic skills and learning the game, she envisions the fall session will include some competition opportunities and more chances for competition.
“We want to keep them thriving for more and always keep improving,” Lewellyn said.”